Water Street: New Lexington Avenue restaurant honors downtown street's history

Mackensy Lunsford
Asheville Citizen Times
Water Street on Lexington Ave will feature a wall of plants on the patio.

Across the street from her soon-to-come Lexington Avenue restaurant, Rosetta Buan says, you can still hear the water running under the pavement.

Whether that's a creek running beneath the city or stormwater drainage is up for debate. 

It is historical fact that water once ran from a spring at the cross of Walnut Street and what is now Lexington Avenue, formerly known as Water Street.

Buan, also the owner of Rosetta's Kitchen and Buchi Bar, has named her latest restaurant Water Street, mostly to bring awareness to the mountain springs that once fed the land and watered their animals in downtown Asheville. 

"This was the cross of the original Native American trails," she said. "This was a highway before there were colonizers here. For me, it's an energetic thing. It's about consciousness."

Water Street owner Rosetta Buan March 23, 2021.

Water Street will open in spring in the former Aux Bar and Vincent's Ear space.

Buan and her crew are in the process of revamping the large courtyard there, cleaning out a stream-like water feature to run and babble again.

They're hanging planters of ivy and sedum on locally made macrame hangers to form somewhat of a green wall, where brass bells will hang to jingle in the breeze.

What will soon be a peaceful patio is now a scene of disarray, weeks before opening.

But the construction could not keep two women from stopping by to pose for photos in front of the fire-engine red patio chairs behind a not-yet-in-use seating bar facing Lexington Avenue.

"It happens all day," said Buan. "They can't even walk by."

This is the Lexington Avenue of 2021, but this area has long drawn people to pause and refresh. 

A history as a meeting place

Historic records show a creek ran through what is now Lexington Avenue, called Water Street until around the turn of the 20th century. 

A 1922 book on the history of Asheville by Forster Alexander Sondley says a large spring once bubbled forth where Walnut Street and Lexington Avenue now meet.

It was notable enough to be used as a landmark in many deeds at the time, he said, and its water drained downhill and ran along Water Street.

Water Street on Lexington Ave in Asheville March 23, 2021.

"Even subsequent to the late war," he wrote, horses have been seen mired up to the body in the blue mud of Water Street, just south of Woodfin Street."

According to "A History Of Jewish Businesses In Downtown Asheville, 1880-1990," a project of City Seeds Inc., drovers who were traveling through the area on their way to market in distant cities with animals to sell would water their horses and livestock there.

Later, Buncombe farmers who came to town for Saturday markets would tie their livestock along Water Street to allow them to reach the water. 

Sondley also noted that a trail once ran along the creek later covered by Water Street, leading up a Native American graveyard where the Kress Building is now, perhaps a memorial to a battle between Cherokee and Catawba.

Do the waters run again?

By 1922, Sondley wrote, those springs were "nowhere to be found."

But the late historian Rob Neufeld wrote that, during renovation of the T.S. Morrison at Lexington Avenue and Walnut Street in the 1930, water was found underground.

"We put some steel in that building, and to get bottom, we went down twenty or so feet," Asheville architect Anthony Lord told Neufeld. "And we found this little creek running in a stream, a horse’s skull and a lot of charcoal and stuff down there.”

Buan has not seen any physical evidence that streams still run under the city, but she likes the story the late downtown visionary John Lantzius once told her.

Lantzius, Buan said, believed those waters still ran, and he told her of his idea to open up access to them.

"He had lots of lots of ideas, but he thought that would be good for tourism," Buan said. "The most ironic thing for me was to begin to understand that Asheville basically sprang up as a tourist spot originally."

For now, it's enough to evoke the springs with the name of her restaurant and a water feature bubbling like a creek along the side of the patio.

"Honoring the springs and waters of these mountains is important to me energetically, regardless of where they're physically bubbling up," said Buan.

What will Water Street serve?

Much of the menu at Water Street is still in the works, but the concept is beginning to solidify. 

Buan said the restaurant will serve food with ingredient transparency and "thought and care put into conscious and healthier choices, but still playing on the Rosetta's concept: comfort food."

Expect a less greasy take on American diner fare with a focus on local and organic meats, mushrooms and vegetables. That means bowls of grits, fried potatoes or waffles for breakfast and brunch, topped with a choice of proteins, vegetables and other garnishes. Meat will be prepared in a separate kitchen.

Water Street on Lexington Ave in Asheville March 23, 2021.

The lunch and dinner menu will focus on what can be cooked on the patio's open-air grill: skewers of mushrooms, meat and vegetables, all as locally sourced as possible. They'll come served over flatbread or as a plate with sides. 

Water Street will also serve seasonal salad plates. There will be a full bar with spirited and alcohol free cocktails, beer and wine. 

What is consent-based management?

Buan's restaurants have always run on consent-based governance, which means employees have a say in the business's direction, and even how much they get paid. 

With an ever-growing staff, that can get unwieldy.

Former Asheville Waldorf School administrator Jenn Garrett, now the administrative coordinator for Buan's restaurants, helps herd the cats.

"Typically, we'll have a one-hour meeting, and a big part of my role is to get it moving so that we can maximize our time together and work on consent," she explained.

Water Street owner Rosetta Buan March 23, 2021.

During the pandemic, those meetings happened via Zoom, and employees had a say on everything: whether they felt safe working in a pandemic, when the restaurants should close and reopen, whether Water Street would serve meat — or even if the project would happen at all, Garrett said. 

Garrett once started a typical weekly meeting by asking employees what satisfied them most about their job.

"There were three people who said being involved in these meetings, consent, gives me purpose," she said. "That I have freedom to chart my own course."

The restaurant operates with such transparency that employees know what sales look like. Some even decide to take pay cuts if it benefits the business. 

"What I hear from most employees is, whatever it takes for the business to make it," Garrett said. 

The turnover rate at the restaurant since the pandemic began is close to zero. 

In the early days of Rosetta's, the team used to liken the way the restaurant ran to the democratic running of a pirate ship.

"And that metaphor still floats," said Buan. "Because we do still have to keep the ship afloat, but how we operate inside of our ship is up to us."

Storms and pandemics will come, said Buan.

"We have these things we have to weather," she said. "We are on the seas of capitalism, and there's no way off that right now."

The pirate metaphor, she admitted, could carry negative connotations.

But pirates always looked out for their own, she said: "It was all together, all for one." 

Water Street will open at 68 N Lexington Ave. in the coming weeks. 


Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.

Reach me:  mlunsford@citizentimes.com.

Read more: Subscribe to the Citizen Times here. Subscribe to my newsletter here